By Pete Wedderburn Last updated: February 25th, 2010
The headline is certainly eye-catching: "Expensive vet bills are forcing animal lovers to kill pets". And the substance of yesterday's article is also worrying: "Animal lovers are being forced to put down their pets amid rising veterinary bills, new research claims." It's only when you read the detail of the piece with a sceptical eye that it become obvious what the story is really about: selling pet insurance.
It's an old ploy. Why does anyone buy insurance? So that they're protected in the event of an overwhelming financial threat (such as a house burning down). What can marketing companies do to increase the sales of insurance policies? Simple: exaggerate the risk so that people feel insecure and are therefore more likely to buy insurance. And that's what this survey is all about.
The "research" claimed that "56 per cent of vets …. have had to put down cats and/or dogs because their owners could not afford the cost of treating their conditions. " The survey that produced this statistic involved telephoning 51 vets out of a profession of over 16000. A sample size of 0.3 per cent is hardly statistically significant.
Furthermore, the context of the question that was answered by the vets is important. I agree that it would be shocking if I had to put down a young healthy dog because its owner could not afford to treat a condition that I could easily fix. But what about a fifteen year old Labrador with cancer? Yes, I could treat the cancer with surgery followed by radiation treatment and chemotherapy. The dog's life could be extended by weeks or months, at a cost of several thousand pounds. Now it's not so
surprising when I tell the researcher that "I put the dog down because the owners could not afford the cost of treatment".
I'm not in denial here: veterinary costs are expensive. There is no free national health service for animals. Although veterinary medicine costs compare favourably to those in human medicine, medical costs in the UK are hidden because patients don't pay them directly. When a pet unexpectedly becomes ill, you have to take out your credit card or cheque book and pay up front. The cost of treating your pet hits you directly. Pet insurance does make sense, so that in the event of a serious health crisis for your pet, you can afford the best care regardless of the state of your bank balance at that moment.
Frightening people into taking out insurance is likely to have an unfortunate side-effect: creating unnecessary anxiety amongst those who cannot afford to buy the insurance. If a pet owner is unable to afford vets' bills, there's a wide range of options to consider before being forced to "kill the pet". Animal charities such as the PDSA or the Blue Cross may be able to help. Your own vet may be able to offer a budget option: for example, amputating a badly injured limb could cost one tenth of the cost of a complex repair. And many vets do pro-bono work quietly, helping out those who are unable to help themselves.
Yes, euthanasia may be the only cost-effective way of relieving a pet's suffering, but only after sifting through many other possible answers. Exaggerating the risk of this "final solution" may make headlines, and may sell pet insurance, but it should be seen for what it is: a disingenuous marketing ploy.